Time Bankruptcy

As I prepared to travel earlier this week, I was thinking how a few days at home really wasn’t enough. May is just a hugely busy month on both the work and personal life front and some days it seems like there is so much to do, I hardly make any progress. Wheels spinning. There were also a lot of things I still didn’t get done around the home front (including, I am sorry my darling wife, pumping up the wheels on the stroller [speaking of wheels]… even though you have asked me probably 10 times).

I was reflecting on a recent article I read by Arianna Huffington, entitled “America’s Real Deficit Crisis” – an article about how the real problem in our western culture is that everything is rushed, time sensitive and lacking in deliberation. We no longer savor life or stop and smell the roses. Normally, when I get time management advice from someone ultra-wealthy, I take it with a grain of salt. It’s easy to eliminate a lot of pointless time utilization in your life when you have the financial resources to transfer responsibility to others. But she is a pretty smart lady and I quite liked the article – it’s worth a read.

The idea of time deficit – and “time sickness” – is a real one to me. I really do feel like I cram too much into my life and the biggest stressor on this has been the arrival of my son. It’s like all of a sudden I have to do the same as I did before, but the “pie” of time resource has been shrunk by a third or more. If I am honest with myself, the enormous stress I have felt in the first year of fatherhood is not the responsibility of fatherhood itself (a great joy to me), but the inability to reconcile the pre-fatherhood notions of my life with my post-fatherhood availability of time.

I’m just not getting it right.

But it’s also not time as a quantity – but time as a quality. I constantly find my work life invading into every aspect of my day, precisely because I have to do more with less time. Instead of playing with my son at the end of the day (or, for example, bath time), I have one eye on my smart phone. I am ashamed to admit it. Instead of reading a book or talking to my wife before bed, I am catching up on some final work and email at the end of the day – no wonder I go to sleep with my brain polluted and the nights become restless. Also, how is your brain supposed to float into blissful unconsciousness if your entire day has been scheduled and time-sliced down to half-hour segments?

No wonder my wife doesn’t like me very much at the moment! I certainly also haven’t read a book in a long time that didn’t have anything to do with … well… anything.

I like Arianna’s concept of time affluence. Strangely, when I am doing voluntary work or teaching – “giving my time away” – I do feel a tremendous sense of luxury and there is no doubt that this is part of the reason I enjoy it so much… and why it is important to me and my sense of balance. Therefore, I think I need to find some way to achieve this same sense of time affluence in my home life. I suspect this means getting back to the notion of giving my time with joy, rather than feeling that my time being taken by other things. I also have a feeling this is going to involve some self-discipline, like getting rid of the phone in the evenings. Maybe I need to invent a “time safe” (do you like the irony?) – a metal box anchored to the floor that opens at 7pm every evening and enables me to lock my phone away without a combination or access code, and doesn’t release it until the next morning. Maybe a bit of timed software plugged into the firewall that blocks mail access?

That’s how weak I am. Pathetic, eh?

But I also think I need to recalibrate myself on how to make the time I spend doing the mundane chores of life a bit more satisfying. For example, on a Saturday morning I’ll finish doing some work and rush to the supermarket to buy groceries for the week … and … rush it all the way. Maybe I should take my son along and treat it as a learning adventure? Since for him, I am sure it still is an exciting thing to do. Maybe rather than rushing the “supermarket outing” calendar entry, I can even manage to reserve enough time to not only make it fun for Max, but make detour to the swings in the park on the way home. This would also have the added benefit of deterring me from buying (fattening) ice cream products that would undoubtedly melt in the back of the car, thereby also contributing to my weight loss objective.

Bonus!

Apparently, the future is “Monoversities”

Last week I was back in Melbourne and in between catching up with my home life (playing with my little boy!), taking a breather from a brutal April travel schedule and trying to reconquer a mountain of unfinished work that tends to accumulate during travel, I made a trip down to Monash University to listen to the Hon Christopher Pyne MP talk about the “coalition” government’s vision for education.

As many readers will be aware, I care deeply about education. I think it is the cornerstone of building a better a world. It can lead to improvements in child mortality and health. It links to environmental sustainability. It is the driving force behind innovation and economic productivity. I’m a big fan of HSBC bank’s “in the future” advertisement series (genius) – one of the best and truest captions goes something like “In the future, education will be the best investment.” Profound stuff… and utterly true.

…but I digress.

Australia is heading into an election cycle and so I have been trying to understand what rubbish our politicians are trying to serve up this time around. By the way, I’ll throw out there that Australia has the WORST politicians in the world. It’s not that they’re particularly corrupt (though, Craig Thomson’s fraud and sex scandal suggests otherwise), it’s not that they’re xenophobic (though, according to Cory Bernardi, gay marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality); it’s just that they are mostly underwhelming, white and a bit liver-lipped. Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, deserves much kudos for being the first woman PM but I don’t have much positive to say about her or her party’s politics.

My mother always told me, if you can’t say anything nice – say nothing at all.

Sometimes lawyers tell me the same thing.

I will say one thing, however, and that is Tony Abbott is a buffoon. I can’t believe he’s Oxford-educated. His party seemingly has no policy other than to slander the Labour government. His budgetary ruminations don’t make sense (either in economic terms or basic accounting), his stance on climate change is irresponsible and he has no game plan for how to build a financial reserve to support Australia’s future infrastruture and economic diversification needs, other than “we can’t tax mining.”

Er…

I’d like to say, however, Mr. Pyne is a very polished guy. Charming. Gave a great speech, dammit I liked him… But to my dismay he reiterated a lot of opposition government mantras that I didn’t really want to hear (and don’t really believe) and he certainly upheld the party dogma of simply attacking existing policy, rather than formulating and proposing bold and clever new ideas. It’s also clear that an important facet of the party rubric is to wistfully hark back to the days of Howard government, obviously the last time that the country could have possibly been responsibly run…

But, what of education?

Well, the good news is that the coalition government acknowledges that education and R&D is important to the economy. They believe that there have been too many cuts to education and research and that this needs to be addressed. I’m not sure which money pot they were thinking of pulling it from, but this was a fairly consistent theme in the speech. It’s clear that their policy wonks have recognised some of the problems with the allocation mechanisms of research grants and that it’s not very “egalitarian.” There was some waffle and rubbish about the fact that with only a 20% chance of getting a grant funded, academics waste too much time writing grants … whatever. Let’s just hope that whatever the more “efficient” system is that they come up with that our stellar politicians at least still make it a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

However, there were two issues in the Minister’s speech that slightly concerned me.

The first is that Mr Pyne suggested that it was ok for universities to become “segregated” into institutions that excel at research, and institutions that excel at teaching. Now, to some extent, I agree this is true. Or rather, I do believe that there are many vocationally-directed courses that don’t need to be taught by people with strong research backgrounds. However, we need to be very careful about the degree of separation between the two. There is no doubt that unless you have people who are aware of “best practice”, teaching loses efficacy. Similarly, if you have great research institutions but don’t inspire and develop the next generation, you also get stagnation. Considering the pace of knowledge, is it really wise to separate the two? Should we be forgetting that “University” is short for universitas magistrorum et scholarium – a “community” of teachers and scholars? Will we stop educating great people if we separate the two?

This issue reflects, at its heart, growing political momentum behind the idea that universities are just there to create a trained workforce. This is certainly an important deliverable to society, but it is far from the only one. The problem is that politicians see universities as either a consumer of public R&D budget, or a headcount allocation for tertiary education – and nothing else. This gross simplification helps to propagate the argument for instilling the teaching/research divide. Unfortunately, it fails to consider a very important part of our modern world, namely the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and the equal (in my view) importance of teaching and research to enabling innovation. There is no doubt that our universities are ripe for systemic and conceptual overhaul, and disruptors (i.e. MOOCs, immigration/population movement) are going to drive completely redefine the university environment in the next decade, but I am not sure this is the redefinition it needs.

However, what is going to become ever more important is that universities are places where truly interdisciplinary thinking can be nurtured. Mr Pyne talked about eradicating universities that offer “everything”, creating institutions with a focused and limited repertoire rather than the whole “smorgasbord.” Instead, he’d welcome universities that choose to excel in particular areas, to build centres of excellence where resources around a particular discipline are concentrated. In concept this sounds like a nice, efficient idea – but is it really practical? As a fairly small country, I don’t mind if we only build one “cracking” petroleum engineering school or mining department. I don’t mind if we only have once “Institute for Advanced Energy Research.” In a way, it probably also makes sense to try and distribute these centres around as much as possible otherwise only one or two universities are going to end up getting the monopoly on public funding and that will lead to a lack of competition.

Unfortunately, I think that if a university is going to have an engineering school, it probably wants a law school, a medical school, education and arts… and vice-versa. Why? Thinking no longer happens in silos. We live in an interdisciplinary age. We don’t innovate in traditional “fields” anymore, we innovate where fields bump into each other and blend ideas from disparate areas of intellectual endeavour. From an intellectual hygiene vantage, I couldn’t imagine a university not being a place where people from diverse disciplines couldn’t readily interact. Replicating an MIT or a Caltech in science/technology MIGHT work, but even those institutions thrive through diverse research and teaching collaborations with other universities – usually proximal.

I’m not sure I want our universities to become “monoversities” quite yet…

So, despite the fact that I am now encouraged by my (new) belief that not everyone in opposition government is as underwhelming as their leader, for now there is nothing really apparent in coalition education policy that makes me think that there are refreshing new ideas just waiting to transform our university system.

Ho hum.

I despise the term “Social Entrepreneurship”

This post begins what I have decided to affectionately call my “grumpy old man” series. Maybe I’m just a burnt out entrepreneur, maybe I’ve been a bit short on sleep in recent months, maybe as a GenX, I will never understand something that is blindingly obvious to a GenY – but I really don’t like the term “Social Entrepreneurship.”

What is the alternative to ‘Social Entrepreneurship?’ Anti-social Entrepreneurship?

All entrepreneurship is intrinsically socially-directed to a greater or lesser extent, so why has this distinction evolved? Is there more to it than people just looking for an “alternative” culture to uncool capitalism … or a place to park weak business models that wouldn’t otherwise be credible without the “social” precursor?

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged enough to attend a YGL workshop at the Harvard Kennedy School where a room full of very interesting and bright people talked about some major issues facing our world. The notion of “conscious capitalism” came up as a core theme. In fact, we even studied a case based on Wholefoods as an exploration of how capitalism and social values can be made to intersect. It became clear from the class discussion that there were some people who are vehemently opposed to capitalism. For some people, it is a dirty word, akin to ‘rapist’ or ‘pedophile’ and the emotional backlash of even possibly being branded a capitalist was rather shocking to me.

Capitalism has a lot to answer for, particularly in recent times. I am as disgusted as anyone about what has happened to our financial systems – but we also have to remember that there is a dual-edged sword here. We cannot throw markets open to vast innovation and ideation and never expect any challenges. Similarly, when the State intervenes with the market, better make sure policy is right! The Canadian government will tell you that it was prudent macroeconomic leadership that kept Canada’s banks stable – that’s true – but it was also the fact that fairly straightforward policies prevented risk exposure to subprime mortgages. In fact, in the US, the subprime disaster happened simply because policy allowed it to happen (and some argue, encouraged it because of Freddie/Fannie’s involvement).

So Capitalism, free market dynamics and policy are a three-headed hydra that can occasionally become chaotic. We’ve learned that lesson many times and I am certain it will happen again.

I personally believe in a notion of capitalism that is much simpler. Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” is one of my favorite treatises and, with few exceptions, reflects a philosophy that I personally subscribe to. The road has not been without bumps, but when we focus only on the rot in our “free” market economy, we lose sight of the fact that capitalism has done tremendous things to globally elevate our (collective) standard of living and has lifted a couple of BILLION people out of poverty. I do believe that when our markets are free (but somewhat regulated – I am not as passionate about deregulation as Friedman) and enterprise is able to flourish without oppression from the State or any other meta-influence, then there is a higher probability that society conforms to some kind of democratic principle and that people are freer, safer and have a higher standard of living as a consequence.

So – what has this got to do with “Social Entrepreneurship?” Well, I vehemently dislike this term for 4.5 reasons.

I’ll start with the .5 because it is most relevant to the past few paragraphs.

Just because you are a social entrepreneur, doesn’t mean you aren’t a capitalist. If you think this isn’t true, then you don’t understand what capitalism is. The economic idea of capitalism, which is pure and simple, is that you utilize (owned) assets/property in such a way that you create / increase value over time, notionally via a profit (economists – you are allowed to shudder at the loose variant of this definition but I think it suffices). Therefore, whatever “organization” you have built to do whatever good deed you are trying to achieve, if it is growing, thriving, increasing and achieving self-sustainability (usually financial) in its objectives, then you have quite possibly and inadvertently achieved an act of CAPITALISM. Your motivation may not have been personal profit, but in a way that is not necessarily a requirement. What’s important is that the enterprise resources of “www.dogoodstuff.org” increased. Unless I am mistaken, this is often a desired goal – even “non-profits” kind of like to see it happen.

… By the way, there is an intrinsic implication in capitalism that if you are going to monetize your resources/assets through exploitation, that this exploitation has to somehow be sustainable. Why? Because if you don’t, your ability to profit from exploitation of your assets will decline. Therefore poisoning rainforests in Ecuador to extract oil is, at the end of the day, poor judgment. In hindsight, it’s not difficult to see that in our current world, the financial and reputational damage to companies that do not conform to our social expectations can be vast. Environmental sustainability isn’t a goal anymore, it’s a hygiene factor. If you don’t have it, people don’t buy your stock – either on principle or on performance.

The remaining four reasons?

1) Today’s society demands a higher duty of care.

We hold the business world to the highest standards of behavior and ethics. It doesn’t always happen – and then punishment is meted – but to think that the corporate veil somehow isolates the ethos of a corporation from society is completely false and erroneous. In fact, our best corporations are those that reflect the broadest cross-section of society and perform well precisely because they encompass our societal norms. I reject that, on the whole, we live in a society that grows ever greedier, exploitative and cruel toward our fellow humans. On the contrary, I believe that our hyper-communicative and integrated world is becoming more compassionate, more aware, more mobilized and responsive. We are reducing poverty, we don’t tolerate gender discrimination, we (correctly) browbeat our politicians into allowing gay marriage we are even curbing greenhouse emissions … perhaps not in time for the polar bears, but it is happening.

So if this is our social trajectory, and our businesses are made up of members of society, does the business world really not share our trajectory?

For an entrepreneur starting a new company, it’s even tougher. There are no shortcuts and there are no “get out of jail” cards. The new venture has to 100% meet our expectations of gender equality, environmental sustainability, “triple bottom line”-type stuff, or it doesn’t hire the best people and it doesn’t last long. FROM DAY ONE. Gone are the times when the new entrepreneur thinks, “Yeah, I’m gonna have a ‘garage’ furniture varnishing plant and dump my waste in the local river.” Those business plans just don’t cut it. In fact our society is becoming so regulated and so demanding on entrepreneurs, that we end up spending as much time conforming to society’s expectations of conduct as we do getting our ventures off the ground.

I’m not arguing that this is bad, by the way (though a risk in some industries because the entry criteria is higher) but rather I argue that, by extension, all entrepreneurs are necessarily ‘social entrepreneurs’ because … drum roll… society demands it.

2) You want to change the world? Better be sure your idea makes it a better place.

There are many entrepreneurs who launch great businesses (and make serious money) from fairly humdrum activities. A better payment system, a different type of financing vehicle, selling stuff, training people, a smarter way of recycling waste, etc. These people create ventures that make our societies – and economies – more efficient, more compliant and they employ people. They are my heroes.

However for those entrepreneurs who can’t sleep at night because they have a blue-sky, game-changer idea, I can tell you – those people are not, on the whole, thinking about ways of exploiting and damaging the planet, or causing misery to others. They are trying to make clean energies, cure cancer or AIDS, feed people, purify water efficiently and make the world safer. Just because those people may become fabulously wealthy doesn’t mean that their ventures are not socially-directed. They could be as meaningfully described as a “social entrepreneurs” as someone trying to help unemployed youth find jobs, save the environment, rescue abandoned pets, preserve historical buildings or retrain single moms who have been made redundant from a declining manufacturing sector.

3) Job creation – is there a more meaningful social endeavour?

When I listen to some wishy-washy “social entrepreneur” talk about some wishy-washy business plan – I think to myself “if they want to use their skills for social benefit, why don’t they just create the opportunity to employ people?” If, as the … er… gold standard Wikipedia suggests, that Social Entrepreneurship is “an entrepreneurial venture that aims to achieve a particular social goal through positive externalities, in addition to profit” – then surely providing stable and high-quality employment is a positive social goal … and qualifies?

During the global financial crisis, we bailed out banks to protect liquidity to mega-corporations. But they still fired thousands of people. My industry (the pharmaceutical industry) alone has shed 150,000 jobs in the US in the past 3-4 years. In my businesses, during the financial crisis – even when we were gasping for cash (banks were not doing much for small business, despite the bail-outs, by the way…) I never fired anyone because the business had to make more money. I went for almost 4 years without personally taking a pay check and personally covered payrolls so that I could guarantee the salary of my employees, so that they could in turn pay their mortgages or send their kids to school, and generally meet their financial obligations.

As an entrepreneur, I am 100% committed to my employees and the stability of their jobs. Why? Partially because I believe that I will have a better performing company, but also because I believe that it is my social obligation as an entrepreneur – just as it is my positive obligation to care for the environment (i.e. properly dispose of toxic waste from the lab) and support our community…. oh, and do so while creating value for shareholders.

However, above all, I believe that good entrepreneurs care deeply about the people and communities that they are part of and job creation in these difficult times is certainly a praiseworthy goal. By the way, this is an achievement that entrepreneurs seldom get credit for. 65% of new job creation in the US (and most similar “western” countries) in the past two decades came from small/medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In a place like Indonesia, it’s more like 70-75% (and, interestingly, driven more by women than by men).

Think about it.

4) Wealth enables philanthropy

Like many entrepreneurs, I am a giver. I usually give away about 20% of my personal earnings each year to a variety of charitable causes. I have put kids through university. I have contributed funds for medical research. I have paid for infrastructure to be built in developing countries. I’m not super-wealthy, though I have more financial freedom (isn’t that a funny combination of words, Dr. Friedman!?) than most people I know. My fortunes definitely wax and wane with my businesses (last few years have been harder), but in general – I consider myself to be very lucky.

It is my general experience with entrepreneurs that the more they make, the more they give. I am motivated by money. I value the freedom of not having to worry about whether I can pay for something, or go on a holiday or cope with an unexpected bill. I value the fact that I can afford clean food and water, better healthcare and live with a higher degree of security. But I do not believe that I have a right to any of those things, if I do not give something back. I am therefore also motivated to give my money away and the more I successful I am, the more this inclination has developed.

It’s also worth noting that despite our turbulent times, we have the largest private foundational wealth in the history of world – and people are giving. Yes, there are bad capitalists that waste money and lead excessive lives – but there are also many who quietly get on with the business of making sure that their spare time and money is directed at worthy causes. Yet again, an example of how the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs are intrinsically social entrepreneurs.

So here endith my rant. I have a sneaking suspicion that too many people who call themselves ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ simply don’t have ideas that are important enough or big enough to generate profit and sustainability alongside the intended beneficial consequence. In short, they are not entrepreneurs they are … er… just “social.” They should not be allowed a lower performance bar just because they choose to call themselves ‘Social Entrepreneurs.’

I have certainly seen plenty of crap social entrepreneurship business plans (and for clarity, at least as many lousy ‘regular’ entrepreneurship plans).

As a final comment – those of you who know me well know that I am intrigued by Islamic economics. I am not a Muslim and I have mixed enthusiasm about different aspects of the modern Islamic world … but the fundamental philosophy of Islam is fascinating, particularly in relation to concepts of wealth. There are a couple of great lines in Kard-i-Hasana in advice to the “Rich Man” (17:26) that should be a kind of credo for the entrepreneur – “Give the kinsman his due, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and squander not they wealth … those who believe and do good works … and pay the poor-due, their reward is with their Lord.”

I value the idea that entrepreneurs might even be more successful because we care about the world that we are part of – so even if you don’t buy into my argument that all entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs, at least hope that – in time – they can be.